The ministry of the deaconess through history

The ministry of the deaconess through history - Part one of two

In this first of a two-part series, the author examines the role of deaconesses in the New Testament and early church.

Nancy Vyhmeister, PhD, is professor emeritus of missions, at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Editor’s Note: Part one of a two-part series examines the role of the deaconess in the New Testament and early church. Part two, to appear in September 2008, will examine the role of the deaconess in the Adventist Church.1

What was the role of the deaconesses in the New Testament and in the church through history? To understand this issue fully, we shall first turn to the New Testament for a study of the word deaconess and review the life and work of some of the deaconesses mentioned there. Then we shall briefly explore the role of the deaconesses in the early church from available historical records.

The word in the New Testament

The word deaconess is the feminine counterpart of the male deacon. Both words come from the Greek verb diakone (to serve, to assist, to minister).

In Matthew 8:15, Luke 10:40, and Acts 6:2, the authors used the verb diakone in connection with serving food and other aspects of ministry. For example, Jesus coming to minister or serve (Matt. 20:28); Paul’s trip “to Jerusalem to minister to the saints” with the offerings he collected in Europe (Rom. 15:25, NKJV); and the commendation of believers “ministering” to the saints (Heb. 6:10).

The noun diakonia also describes: the table ministry the apostles entrusted to the seven (Acts 6:1, 2); Paul’s God-given ministry of the gospel (Acts 20:24); and the spiritual gifts given to the saints to prepare them for ministry (Eph. 4:12).

The noun diakonos is used in several ways. It denotes one who waits on tables, as at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:5). Jesus told that “ ‘whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant [diakonos]’ ” (Mark 10:43, NKJV). With Paul, the word takes on a specifically Christian sense. Paul is a diakonos of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6), of God (2 Cor. 6:4), and of the church (Col. 1:25). In these texts, the meaning comes much closer to minister than to servant.

In Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8–13, diakonos identifies specific church officers. Theirs was evidently a spiritual occupation, for the requirements were spiritual, personal integrity, and blamelessness.

The Greek, which usually distinguishes carefully between masculine and feminine forms of a noun, does not do so with diakonos. The same word is used for male and female religious servers, both in pagan religions and in Christianity. When the article is used, the gender is visible: ho diakonos (masculine) and h diakonos (feminine). The feminine diakonissa appeared only in the early fourth century.

Women deacons in the New Testament

Phoebe. Paul, in Romans 16:1, 2, called Phoebe a diakonos of the church of Cenchraea. Besides this brief statement, we know nothing about Phoebe, except that she was a benefactor of Paul and others, and that Paul commended her to the church in Rome.

That she was a benefactor or patroness (prostatis) suggests a woman of wealth and position. In the first-century Mediterranean world, a patron or benefactor funded the construction of monuments or buildings, financed festivals or celebrations, and supported artists and writers. Of interest to this study, Paul recognized Phoebe as a diakonos, or minister, of the church at Cenchraea. Only here is diakonos used in relation to a specific church, implying some kind of position in the church. Translation of the term diakonos in this passage has more to do with the translator than the meaning of the Greek word. The KJV has “servant”; the NIV has “servant,” with “deaconess” in the note; the NRSV says “deacon,” with “minister” in the note.

Early church writers give their own interpretation of this passage. Origen (185–254) interprets Paul’s statement to teach “that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry.”2 About Phoebe and the other women of Romans 16, John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) wrote: “You see that these were noble women, hindered in no way by their sex in the course of virtue; and this is as might be expected for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.”3 Theodoret (393–460) noted Phoebe as “a woman deacon, prominent and noble. She was so rich in good works performed as to have merited the praise of Paul.”4

“The women likewise.” In 1 Timothy 3:2–7, Paul lists the characteristics of bishops or overseers. Verses 8–10 describe the spiritual traits required of diakonoi. Verse 11 seems something of a digression: who are these “women”? The Greek word, which can be translated “women” or “wives,” has been variously translated as “women,” “women deacons,” or “their [deacon’s] wives.”

The suggestion that the term refers to wives of deacons presents difficulties, for in the Greek there is no possessive. Whose wives were they? On the other hand, if one takes the context seriously, these women serve the church as do their male counterparts. Quite probably, these women were female deacons, as was Phoebe.

In the late second century, Clement of Alexandria (155–220) indicated that this text presented evidence for the existence of diakonon gunaik n (“women deacons”). John Chrysostom and Theodoret, writing in the fourth and fi fth centuries respectively, also understood these women to be female deacons.5

Women deacons in the early church

During the early centuries, women deacons and widows were recognized church leaders. We will examine evidence for the existence, tasks, and ordination of women in the diaconate6 and then point to reasons for the demise of the female diaconate.

The existence of deaconesses. Somewhere between A.D. 111 and 113, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking how he should deal with Christians. In the letter, he tells of questioning two women, who were called ministrae, the Latin equivalent of diakonos.7

Of the ministry of women, Clement of Alexandria wrote: “But the apostles in conformity with their ministry concentrated on undistracted preaching, and took their wives around as Christian sisters rather than spouses, to be their fellow-ministers [“fellow deacons”] in relation to housewives, through whom the Lord’s teaching penetrated into the women’s quarters without scandal.”8

The Didascalia Apostolorum [Teaching of the Apostles], undoubtedly from the eastern part of the empire and composed in the third century, gives specific instructions about the role of men and women church workers: “Therefore, O bishop, appoint yourself workers of righteousness, helpers who cooperate with you unto life. Those that please you out of all the people you shall choose and appoint as deacons: on the one hand, a man for the administration of the many things that are required, on the other hand a woman for the ministry of women.”9

Tomb inscriptions also provide evidence that female deacons served the church. Among others, an inscription found in the vicinity of the Mount of Olives tells of “Sophia the Deacon.” Dated to the second half of the fourth century, the tombstone reads: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, the deacon (h diakonos), the second Phoebe.”10 As a “bride of Christ,” Sophia would have been celibate.

A sixth-century inscription from Cappadocia in Asia Minor gives not only the title, but shows what this female diakonos did: “Here lies the deacon Maria of pious and blessed memory, who according to the words of the apostle raised children, sheltered guests, washed the feet of the saints, and shared her bread with the needy. Remember her, Lord, when she comes into your kingdom.”11

In the East, deaconesses appear as late as the twelfth or thirteenth century. The Liber Patrum states: “As for deaconesses, they must be wise. Those who have provided a clear witness of purity and fear of God are the ones who should be chosen. They should be chaste and modest and sixty years or older in age. They carry out the sacrament of baptism for women because it is not fitting that the priest should view the nudity of women.”12

The ordination of deaconesses. The Apostolic Constitutions (late fourth century) give instruction to the bishop on the ordination of church leaders, male and female. The bishop is to lay hands upon the woman and pray: “O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and woman, who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Hulda, who didst not disdain that Thy only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple didst appoint women to be keepers of Thy holy gates, —Do Thou now also look down on this Thy servant who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Thy Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, that she may worthily discharge the work committed to her to Thy glory and the praise of Thy Christ.”13

At the Council of Chalcedon (451), the ordination of deaconesses is expressly called ordination by the imposition of hands. Members of the Council agreed that “a woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination.”14

Emperor Justinian directed a novella (March 16, 535) to the archbishop of Constantinople, indicating that the church there should have 40 women deacons. In subsequent instructions, he stated that the same rules should apply to women deacons as to priests and deacons. As virgins or widows of one husband, they merited sacred ordination.15

The Barberini Greek Euchology, an eighth-century Byzantine ritual for the ordination of male and female deacons, calls for the laying-on of hands in ordination. The first of two prayers was said by a deacon, and noted that God sanctified the female sex through the birth of Jesus and has given the Holy Spirit to both men and women. The second prayer, said by the archbishop, stated: “Lord, Master, you do not reject women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing, in a becoming way, to serve your Holy House, but admit them to the order of your ministers. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maid servant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfill in her the grace of the ministry of the diaconate, as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate, whom you had called to the work of the ministry.”16

Tasks of deaconesses. From ancient documents, we learn of the functions performed by early deaconesses. The Apostolic Constitutions command the bishop to “ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations towards women. . . . For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities.”17 Female deacons had a special ministry for women, especially in pagan homes, where male deacons were not welcome. They took the eucharist to women who could not attend church. In addition, they ministered to the sick, the poor, and those in prison.18 The most important ministry of the female deacons was to assist at the baptism by immersion of women. The deaconess anointed the baptismal candidate with oil, apparently over the whole body. In some cases, she held up a veil so that the clergy could not see the naked woman being baptized. She may have accompanied the woman into the water.

The Disdascalia points to the role of women deacons in the teaching ministry: “And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and educate her in order that the unbreakable seal of baptism shall be (kept) in chastity and holiness. On this account, we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially required and urgent.”19

James of Edessa (683–708) noted that deaconesses in the Eastern Church “had no authority regarding the altar.” They could “sweep the sanctuary and light the sanctuary lamp.” In a community of nuns, they could take “the holy sacrament from the tabernacle and distribute this” to her fellow nuns.20

Demise of the female diaconate

While deaconesses appear in the Eastern Church until the twelfth or thirteenth century, in the West their end came much earlier. British monk Pelagius (c. 420) wrote that the female diaconate was an institution fallen into disuse in the West, though remaining in the East.21

The Synod of Nimes (396) pointed out that the problem with deaconesses was that women had “assumed for themselves the ministry of the Levites,” which was “against apostolic discipline and has been unheard of until this time.” Further, “any such ordination that has taken place is against all reason and is to be destroyed.”22

A series of church councils made pronouncements against the ordination of deaconesses. The First Council of Orange (441) ordered: “In no way whatsoever should deaconesses ever be ordained. If there already are deaconesses, they should bow their heads beneath the blessing which is given to all the people.”23 The Burgundian Council of Epaon (517) ruled: “We abrogate totally within the entire kingdom the consecration of widows who are named deaconesses.”24 The Second Synod of Orleans (533) followed up on this prohibition. Its Canon 18 states: “To no woman must henceforth the benedictio diaconalis be given, because of the weakness of the sex.”25

The ordination of deaconesses, rather than their work, seems to have become an issue, perhaps because of their monthly “impurity.” Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (315–405), who held that women “are a feeble race, untrustworthy and of mediocre intelligence,” pointed out that deaconesses were not clergy, but served the “bishops and priests on grounds of propriety.”26 In a letter to John, Bishop of Jerusalem, he insisted he had never “ordained deaconesses . . . nor done anything to split the church.”27 By 1070, Theodore Balsamon, Patriarch of Antioch, could affirm that “deaconesses in any proper sense had ceased to exist in the Church though the title was borne by certain nuns.”28 One of the reasons he gave was the “impurity of their menstrual periods” and the fact that law “prohibits women from entering the sanctuary.”29

Jacobite author Yahya ibn Jarir, writing from Persia in the third quarter of the eleventh century, wrote: “In antiquity deaconesses were ordained; their function was to be concerned with adult women and prevent their being uncovered in the presence of the bishop. However, as the practice of religion became more extensive and the decision was made to begin administering baptism to infants, this function of deaconesses was abolished.”30

Michael the Great, patriarch from 1166 to 1199, seemed to agree: “In ancient times there was a need for deaconesses, principally to assist with the baptism of women. When converts from Judaism or paganism became disciples of Christianity and thereby became candidates for holy baptism, it was by the hands of the deaconesses that the priests and bishops anointed the women candidates at the time of their baptism. . . . But we can plainly see that this practice has long since ceased in the Church. . . . There is no longer any need for deaconesses because there are no longer any grown women who are baptized.”31


The existence and ordination of deaconesses in the early church is evident. Their tasks—assisting at the baptism of women, teaching, and caring for people— are also clear. Yet, they disappeared.

Three factors seem to have contributed to the demise of the female diaconate. First, infant baptism replaced adult baptism, making the assistance of a female at the baptism of adult women unnecessary. Second, the sacrifice of the Mass, which gave to the priest the power of converting bread and wine into the very body and blood of Jesus, shaped the understanding of clergy and laity and removed lay people—male and female—from ministry.32 Further, the rise of monasticism, with the institution of nunneries and the insistence on celibacy, changed the focus of church work for women.


This article is part one of a two-part series:

1 A fuller version of this article appeared in Andrews University Seminary Studies 43 (2005): 133–158.

2 Origen, Epistola ad Romanos 10.17.2; commentary on Romans 16.

3 John Chrysostom, Homily 30, on Romans 15:25–27; taken from Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 11:1002.

4 Theodoret, Interpret. Epist ad Rom. 16:1, PG 82, Cols. 217D, 220A.

5 Clement Stromata 3.6.53; John Chrysostom, In Epistola 1 ad Timotheus 3, Homily 11.1.

6 For further information on the history of female deacons, see “The History of Women Deacons,” at (May 21, 2007). See also, John Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders? The Ancient Women Deacons (Norwich, UK: Canterbury, 2002). While Wijngaards interprets the evidence as including women deacons in the clergy, Aimé Georges Martimort, whose careful analysis, Deaconesses: An Historical Study (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986) is considered a classic on the topic, admits the existence of women deacons but denies that they were ever considered clergy.

7 Pliny, Letters 10.96.

8 Clement, Stromata 3.6.53; English translation from Clement of Alexandria, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 85 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1991), 289.

9 “Concerning deacons and deaconesses,” The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, ed. Arthur Vööbus, Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium, 407 (Louvain: Sécretariat du Cor.pus SCO, 1979), 2:156.

10 Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 159.

11 Ibid., 164–167.

12 Liber Patrum, ser. 2, fasc. 16, in S. Congregatio pro Ecclesia Orientali, Codifi caziones canonica orientale, Fonti (Rome: Tipografi a Poliglotta Vaticana, 1930), 34, quoted in Martimort, 158.

13 Apostolic Constitutions 8.3.20, ANF 7:1008.

14 Canon 15, Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, 94.

15 Justinian, Novellae 3.1; 6.6; Corpus Iuris Civilis, vol. 3, Novellae (Zurich: Weidmann, 1968), 20, 21, 43–45.

16 Barberini Greek Euchology 336; for the original Greek, English translation, and the history of the manuscript see (May 15, 2007).

17 Apostolic Constitutions 3.2.16 (ANF 7:884).

18 Mary P. Truesdell, “The Office of Deaconess,” in The Diaconate Today, ed. Richard T. Nolan (Washington, DC: Corpus, 1968), 150. Truesdell, an Episcopalian deaconess, based much of her writing on secondary sources, such as The Ministry of Women: A Report by a Committee Appointed by His Grace the Lord Arcbishop of Canterbury (London: SPCK, 1919).

19 Didascalia 16, Vööbus, 2:157.

20 Syrian Synodicon, in “James of Edessa.”

21 Pelagius, Commentary on Romans 16:1, Theodore de Bruyn, Pelagius’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 150, 151.

22 Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church from the Original Documents (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1871), 2:404.

23 Canon 26, Council of Orange, in Charles Joseph Hefele, Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1908), 2:1:446, 447. In a long note, Hefele outlines the history of the female diaconate and maintains that the council had to take strict measures with deaconesses because they were attempting to “extend their attributions” (447).

24 Council of Epaon, Canon 21, in Edward H. Landon, A Manual of the Councils of the Holy Catholic Church (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1909), 1:253.

25 Hefele, A History of the Councils, 4:187.

26 Against Heresies 79.1, 3, 4.

27 Epiphanius, Letter to John Bishop of Jerusalem, ‘2 .asp ( May 15, 2007).

28 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Deaconesses.”

29 Replies to the Questions of Mark, reply 35, http://www.womenpriests .org/traditio/balsamon.asp (May 15, 2007).

30 Jahya ibn Jarir, Book of Guidance of Jahya ibn Jarir, G. Khori-Sarkis, Le livre du guide de Yahya ibn Jarir, Orient Syrien 12 (1967): 461, quoted in Martimort, 166.

31 Syriac Pontifi cal, Vatican Syriac MS 51, quoted in Martimort, 167.

32 Daniel Augsburger, “Clerical Authority and Ordination in the Early Christian Church,” in Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1998), 77–100.



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Nancy Vyhmeister, PhD, is professor emeritus of missions, at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

July 2008

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